I went to a Christmas Vespers service a couple days ago. The first time I attended one was my freshman year at Moravian College (1981), and I’ve been sitting in the same pew at Central Moravian church almost every year since then.
A Moravian College press release explains Vespers this way: “The Vespers service is an expression of two traditional forms of worship in the Moravian Church, the Singstunde (Singing Hour) and the Candlelight Service. … In the service, the music has been carefully selected and arranged to bring the Christmas message without need of a sermon.”
And it’s true: There is no sermon. But students from Moravian College and Moravian Theological Seminary read Bible passages, and a college professor says a prayer. There are also a couple of responsive readings.
At the time of my first Vespers service, I was a religion minor and a Born Again Christian. So I was pretty into the Jesus stuff. But over the years, I’ve become disillusioned with Christianity. Homophobia, the lack of women in senior leadership roles, pedophile priests, and abortion denial are just a few of the things that have caused me to rethink my blind obedience to an old book.
But I was loath to give up Vespers. Over the years, it has come to represent the start of the Christmas season, which to me is about friends and family and a little more kindness in the world. So I remain silent during the responsive reading and listen to the Bible verses as if they’re poetry. It’s the prayer that does me in.
This year, the professor seemed to take particular joy in calling God something different each time she started a new stanza of the prayer (“God of light and dark”), which I found pretentious. And not for the first time, I found myself getting angry about what she was praying for and angry with the people around me for bowing their heads and blindly supporting whatever she said. She wasn’t praying for anything bad — world peace, in one instance — but I found myself thinking that it would be better if she did something rather than pray about it because God surely wasn’t going to intervene (even in wars being fought because of him).
So, if I have all these issues, why do I go each year? To quote Tim Minchin’s “White Wine in the Sun,” I quite like the songs. My favorite is “Morning Star,” which is a responsive hymn with a child in the lead. There’s something about hearing the quivering voice of a child followed by the supportive voices of the congregation that warms my heart.
This year, even my favorite song didn’t “fill my heart with light divine.” For the first time, I’m wondering if I should continue going or if I’ve finally reached a point where Vespers causes more heartache than good feelings.
I do get that it’s my problem. It’s a service that celebrates the birth of Jesus. It makes sense that there would be Bible readings and prayers. But I don’t know that I can deal with them anymore.
Today, I heard a BBC4 show called “Songs of the Sacred Harp.” The show blurb says, “Once called ‘white spiritual,’ this haunting unaccompanied choral tradition survived in the small rural Baptist churches of the American Deep South. … Also called ‘shape note singing,’ the music is based around the Sacred Harp hymn book compiled in Georgia in 1844. The pages show different shapes above the words to indicate the notes, enabling songs to be sung on sight. Gatherings are arranged in a hollow square with the self-selected leader entering the middle to call out the number of their chosen song. No applause or audience is allowed. Far removed from ‘happy clappy,’ they are often austere hymns with themes of death and the pain of everyday existence.”
Several people who sing are not Christian or even religious at all. One woman said, “I once had a southern Baptist ask me, ‘Why do you sing this music if you don’t believe in the words?’ I think that there’s a misconception that because so many of these words are either based in the doctrines of Christianity or have to do specifically with Jesus Christ or God that you cannot find a way to align yourself with their morals and their understandings. And I find that the lyrics of these songs quite frequently apply to any person who considers himself one who does good works…” A man went on to say, “The poetry is strikingly eloquent — even for people who are not religious.”
I get angry with friends who support the Boy Scouts because the organization discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation. I don’t understand how people who are prochoice can attend Mass each Sunday. Would I be a hypocrite for being upset with my friends if I take a page from the non-religious Sacred Harp singers’ books and continue to go to Vespers?
I have months before I have to make a final decision, but right now, I can’t help but think of the chorus of a Sheryl Crow song: “If it makes you happy/Then why the hell are you so sad?”